When my heart was embittered
And I was pierced within,
Then I was stupid and ignorant;
I was like an animal before You.
Nevertheless I am continually with You;
You have taken hold of my right hand.
You will guide me with Your plan,
And afterward receive me to glory.
Whom do I have in heaven but You?
And with You, I desire nothing on earth.
My flesh and my heart may fail,
But God is the strength of my heart and my portion forever.
For, behold, those who are far from You will perish;
You have destroyed all those who are unfaithful to You.
But as for me, the nearness of God is good for me;
I have made the Lord God my refuge,
So that I may tell of all Your works.
Commentary by Timothy Lavenz
The psalmist is bitter, he is stupid, arrogant, yes–it’s not as if faith turns you into a perfect person overnight! far from it–but even amidst him being ‘like an animal’, his desire and will is to stay near to God. He has faith that God remains near, even when he is acting such a fool that he can’t feel that nearness. He knows that, although his own trust falters, God’s trustworthiness is perfect and never fading. God will hold good on His promises and, no matter what trial we face, our best option is to remember those promises, recollect ourselves to God, and grow in endurance of this faith.
For the psalmist knows that salvation–which will bring him across the world of anxiety and death–is found in God alone. He is “the strength of my heart and my portion forever.” The psalmist has nothing, wants nothing more than Him–for he knows he is only real and alive where he is in communion with God. He has also had the hard experience that anything not rooted in God will let him down–though yes, the entire world can be, should be and is rooted in God, such that all is a manifestation of His glory! The psalmist knows that anything we do apart from God–apart from the Spirit of Truth and charity, goodness and beauty–lacks reality. It lacks value, lacks consistency, lacks time. As Aquinas put it, “Insofar as we are sinners we fail to be, and are not”–yet as we obey God, we participate in His Being and are.
God alone is imperishable; therefore I am only safe (saved) where I find myself in God–where my soul is in God and God is in my soul. “Apart from Me you can do nothing,” the Son of God tells us in John 15:5. That is why God’s nearness is the good for the psalmist. Then are his eyes opened to praise all God’s works–creation, salvation, and judgment.
The ‘unfaithful’ one, however, does not see things this way. He is far from God. This character has no respect for the Creator. He is ungrateful for his life and lives only according to his own self-will. If we are near to God, we live in accordance with the Law of His Love. The psalms constantly contrast this ideal of holy obedience with the sinner, the wicked, the self-obsessed, the exploitative, the cruel, the murderers, the mockers and despisers of God. Maybe they don’t mock God with blasphemy, but they do mock him by their actions–putting their own designs above God’s, mistreating orphans and foreigners and widows, disrespecting creation in general.
When the psalmist exclaims, “Behold, they perish!”, this is not said in a vindictive or celebratory way, as if happiness came from winning over enemies, or he took pleasure in their destruction. God does not take pleasure in that! This is rather about upholding truth in reality and reckoning with consequences—spiritual physics–and celebrating the fact that God’s justice is real.
In verse 27, the psalmist expresses his confidence in the final reckoning of things–confidence the validity of true judgments. Those who live only for themselves, who do not love neighbor and God–behold, they perish! Behold, they have fame and wealth, status and power, pleasure in worldly things for a while, but because they did not build on a firm foundation, they come to ruin. Their gains are passing shadows, falsehoods. And even if they make it to death without justice being served, still, their life was wasted in nothing, because “Apart from Me you can do nothing.”
Verses 21-22, however, suggest that the psalmist knows he could share the perishers’ fate. That is a very real possibility, for every sinner. Indeed, what could be more of a lie than for a human to stand before God like an animal? The whole issue of ‘faithfulness’ is about not living in a lie. If you live in a lie, you will perish, because all lies perish. What ground could they have? They are doomed fantasies.
The pain of living in falsehood, below one’s dignity, is elegantly captured by those first lines. They summarize our feeling of being abandoned and alone in our weakness. But verse 23, the “nevertheless” of faith asserts itself. Trust triumphs over defeat. The sudden recollection of the bounty of the living Lord dispels all fear. The epiphany is so strong that the psalmist can stand humanly before God, confess his weakness and recommit himself to God. It purifies into ash whatever his bitter heart might have sparked up into falsehood. With praise and active entrustment to God, he is actively putting the very possibility of living in a lie behind him.
To live in a lie is to squander the most precious possession available–a relation in God’s faith. To recognize the unfaithful are destroyed in their lies—that is a wake-up call that will save one’s life.
When God allows us to go through the painful consequences of our misbehavior–lets us be destroyed–this is a manifestation of His mercy. It serves the possibility of our repentance. And it is better to be destroyed by one’s false way and have that chance, than to carry on with nothing stopping it. Experiencing the destructive consequence can be part of the wake-up call one needs to change. The destruction also clears away what is false, so something else can have a chance to breath.
Impress this truth upon your minds, my listener! All falsity, however ‘minor’, brings destruction of the good. And so all falsehood will be destroyed–because there is no falsehood in God and this creation is His. What cause for great rejoicing! But it also puts on display the utter stupidity of giving any ground to lies, deception, falsehood, sin–for it is ground that will have to burn.
God’s forbearance is long, He is “slow to anger, abounding in steadfast love”–but mercy stands in a balance with judgment, which falls hard on the impenitent. But it falls hard on them for their own good. Everything God does is meant to bring us nearer to Him. The moment we understand that, the whole way we look at our suffering changes. We are ready to bear the destructive force of God’s wrath, knowing it is an event of His profuse mercy intended only to provoke us to turn our lives around.
How pleasant it is to meditate on the veracity of God’s judgments! How good to love God and know one’s “everlasting portion” of Him! There is one saved from wickedness forever. There is the peace that “surpasses all understanding.” Praise His love in all its forms! Praise His mercy, which stretches out to us no matter how much we’ve failed or gone astray! So long as we turn back to God, trust in Him, have faith, He is ready to forgive and heal us from everything we squandered in our God-denying ways.
Let us remember Jesus’ first call, which never ceases to call out to our sinful natures: Repent! Look where you’ve put your treasure–that’s where your heart will be! Make sure the light in you is not darkness! Be wise, put your treasure in God! Then you will know that refuge, that everlasting share which does not perish, which remains even when flesh and heart fail.